Monday, March 18, 2013

Enrique Peña Nieto: On a Path to Reform in Mexico?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Mexican presidential elections and the massive wave of protests they inspired. Yet in his first few months in office, Enrique Peña Nieto has taken impressive steps that have led many to be cautiously optimistic for Mexico’s future. Despite the ongoing drug war, which saw an equal number of kidnappings under Peña Nieto as under his predecessor in the same period, the new president has enacted educational reform, arrested a famously corrupt teacher’s union leader, made a cross-party “Pact for Mexico,” and brought privatization of the state oil company PEMEX to the table. He has also initiated an investigation into the over 27,000 people who were “disappeared” during Felipe Calderon’s presidency.

"La Maestra:" Elba Esther Gordillo, teacher's union leader arrested for embezzlement

Although there are still major obstacles to Mexico’s recovery from the past bloody decade, good news economically means that the country might be equipped to move on from the drug war. In a recent New York Times article, famed writer Thomas Friedman claimed that Mexico is likely to go head to head with India and China for economic predominance in the coming decades. An impressive growth rate of 3.9 percent coupled with booms in Foreign Direct Investment and manufacturing have led to Mexico producing more manufactured goods than the rest of Latin America combined[1].

Peña Nieto’s apparent willingness to tackle the major problem of corruption in Mexico’s organizations should further aid Mexico’s development: creating jobs, giving people an option besides working in the drug trade, and keeping kids in school and off the streets. The multipartisan “Pact for Mexico” vows to take on the infamously corrupt oil industry, teacher’s union, and security apparatus. The arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo, who led the National Union of Education Workers for 23 years, marks an important step in this direction. Ms. Gordillo or “La Maestra” as she is known in Mexico allegedly embezzled 2 billion pesos or $156 million from her organization from 2008-2012. Her taste for high-end items like designer clothes and jewelry has long been a sore spot for the population, who cannot understand how a public servant could afford such things.  Other officials have taken notice of the seemingly untouchable Gordillo’s arrest, which will hopefully have a deterrent effect for future corruption. Recently, Carlos Romero Deschamps, who heads the oil workers’ union, bought a Ferrari for his son, raising eyebrows and suspicions that he will be the next to be arrested on charges of embezzlement and corruption.

In February, President Peña Nieto also enacted sweeping education reform that took control over teacher hiring and promotions out of the hands of the union. By centralizing the process of teacher employment away from the union, Peña Nieto hopes to create a merit-based system by which bad teachers are fired or reprimanded and good teachers are promoted. If he can manage to reform the oil and security industries as well, he will have made great strides to a less corrupt, better-governed Mexico.

The obvious obstacles of the drug war, rampant corruption, and party disagreements will continue to stand in Peña Nieto’s way as he embarks on a path of reform. Yet the fact that he seems to have embarked at all should give those who questioned his election at least a glimmer of hope for a more peaceful Mexico.


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